The Joplin School Board late Tuesday night postponed a decision about how to reopen schools next month, deadlocking on the plan over a recommendation that Joplin High School students attend in-person classes every other day in order to maintain social distancing.

Administrators proposed that the high school use a split model wherein students essentially would be divided into two groups and would attend in-person classes every other day, relying on virtual learning for the days in which they are not physically in the building. Some students, including those in special education classes and those taking certain career or technical courses at Franklin Technology Center, would be able to attend daily.

Principal Steve Gilbreth said that with more than 2,300 students already enrolled for the fall semester at the high school, and with some classes holding 30 or 40 students or more, there is no feasible way to maintain social distancing if all students attend daily.

"I feel like this plan is the kind of plan that I can say, with a fair amount of accuracy, can make Joplin High School a safe place," he said.

Even with a split model, "they have total access to their teachers every single day" through the online learning platform used by the high school, Gilbreth said. "Teachers can post videos of their lessons and (have) interactions with the kids. If a student is at home, they still have access."

Gilbreth said he and the assistant principals at the high school would hold weekly meetings to track each student in order to provide interventions to those who might be falling behind academically. They also would make plans to provide curbside pickup or delivery of lunches to students on days when they do not attend in-person classes.

Superintendent Melinda Moss acknowledged that the split model isn't ideal but that it's about balancing education and safety.

"Three to four weeks ago, I don't think you would have found a stronger advocate than myself that we have to get kids back to school," she said. "But I also am trying to look reasonably at what would happen and how long would it take to shut a building like Joplin High School down (because of an outbreak) if we don't look at other mitigating issues. It's a compromise I wish we didn't have to take, but I feel like the way it stands today, I think it's prudent."

School board debate

Board members were split 3-3 on the proposed high school model. President Sharrock Dermott and members Lori Musser and Michael Joseph were in favor of it; members Brent Jordan, Jeff Koch and Derek Gander were against it. Board member Debbie Fort was absent.

Jordan said he didn't believe keeping high school students out of class half of the time would make them any safer than if they were at school.

"The bottom line is kids are safer when they're at school β€” they're social distanced, they're at times wearing masks," he said. "Where do you think these high school kids are going to be on a random Tuesday? I think they're going to be hanging out with their friends, playing video games, shooting hoops."

Koch said high school staff often assist students with more than academics; they also can help address mental and emotional issues with their students.

"My concern is we're going to lose a whole year's worth of education and a safe space," he said.

But Dermott said he wanted to err on the side of caution in following administrators' recommendations to split high school students' attendance days.

"As a board member, I have a little bit of anxiety over recommending a regular school session at the high school when we just heard from our principal that it's near impossible to maintain social distancing with the population that we have there," he said.

Joseph noted that colleges and universities are moving their classes online, if they're able, to help students social distance, and he questioned why the school district couldn't also follow that guidance.

"Why would we force all these kids into a classroom and roll the dice?" he said.

Other details

School board members were in agreement on other details of the plan.

Across all grade levels, students will be asked to wear face masks upon arrival at and dismissal from school; secondary students should wear their masks as they transition between class periods. Two reusable face coverings β€” one from the district and one from a local partnership β€” will be given to students, and they should be washed daily. Students also will be asked to keep an extra mask in their backpack.

Teachers and staff will be required to wear face masks at arrival and dismissal, as well as when working in close contact with others or with students. For some teachers, such as those working in speech therapy, face shields will be allowed.

Students, teachers and staff who wish to wear a mask for the entirety of a day, or for longer than required, will be allowed to do so.

Screening of students also will take place each day upon arrival. Those with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher will be sent to the nurse's office for further assessment, and the district is developing guidance to handle students who display other potential symptoms of COVID-19.

Only essential visitors will be allowed to enter school buildings this year. Visitors will be screened upon entry and must wear a mask while inside the building.

Seating arrangements in classrooms will be required to help school and health officials know who might be exposed if a positive case of COVID-19 is identified.

"As we work through contact tracing, it's critical for us to know who was where and by who in the event of a positive case," said Sarah Mwangi, assistant superintendent of learning services.

Custodial staff will deep clean buildings and equipment daily, and will increase the frequency of sanitization for items such as doorknobs, light switches and railings. All teachers will have disinfectants and cloths to use in their classroom, and time will be made for frequent hand-washing and sanitizing throughout the day. Buses will be cleaned between the morning and afternoon routes.

The school district also offers a full virtual option for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The program, which is separate from any remote learning that might be required for students attending in-person classes because of an outbreak, was piloted for Joplin High School students in spring 2019 and broadened to be available to all students last fall.

Parents who choose this option should commit to enrolling their students for a full semester at a time, rather than trying to switch between in-person and online learning. The deadline to enroll for the fall semester is Tuesday, Aug. 4.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.